Why a fearless Welsh journalist praised German work camps in 1933

Gareth Jones was a fearless investigative journalist, famous for his reports on the horrific famine that followed enforced collectivization in the Ukraine. He is the subject of a biography published by the Welsh Academic Press, but is now becoming familiar to a wider audience thanks to the newly-released Mr Jones, a major film directed by the wonderful Agnieszka Holland, starring James Norton as Jones (and featuring part of Fife as his home town of Barry).

James Norton

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I first came across Jones in a rather different context, while researching for my study of British work camps. In a series of articles in spring 1933 for the Western Mail and South Wales News, Jones reported on his visits to German labour camps in February 1933, an experience that ‘impressed me deeply’.

Jones’ impressions of the German camps he visited were overwhelmingly positive. He compared the large scale of the German Arbeitsdienst camps with the handful of voluntary and government camps in Wales, concluding that the latter had lessons to learn.

If Wales had done as much as Germany for the unemployed there would now be 300 camps here, and about 10,000 young Welshmen between 18 and 25 years of age would be engaged at useful work, repairing boots, singing, doing physical exercise, playing football or cricket and discussing everything under the sun. . . .Germany is years ahead of Wales in tackling unemployment. Thus Wales has a chance of catching up its brother nation and perhaps of beating Germany in the quality of work done. The opportunity is a magnificent one, especially for the Churches (Western Mail & South Wales News, 27 April 1933).

This cheery picture might seem odd, given how we now view the German labour camps. But when Jones visited Germany, the Nazi Party was just consolidating its hold on power, participation in labour service was still voluntary, and the camps were still organised by a wide variety of voluntary organisations.

Jones visited at least one camp run by the Stahlhelm, a nationalist and conservative paramilitary grouping founded in 1918 as a veterans’ movement; after the Nazi seizure of power, it was integrated into the Nazi structures in 1934. Jones noted that the unemployed trainees wore uniforms and helmets, concluding that the Stahlhelm camp ‘had done excellent work in making orchards and building roads, but their outlook was nationalistic and military’.

Jones also visited other types of camp, including one organised by a Christian group. But he worried that ‘Now, however, the whole system is in the melting-pot, for Hitler is in power, and it is feared that he may destroy its voluntary basis and make it compulsory and narrowly nationalistic’. As indeed was the case when the Nazis replaced the voluntary system with their universal male Reichsarbeitsdienst.

Jones was far from alone in admiring the voluntary labour service of pre-Nazi Germany. In my book I quoted Jones alongside the example of a Workers’ Educational Association study tour which was particularly taken with the ‘democratic way of living’ in a German camp. The fact is that many if not most of these camps were very different animals from the universal labour service enforced by the Nazis.

Entirely consistently, Jones also admired Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, another large scale work camp initiative which trained young unemployed men on public works, in what Jones described as ‘a labour army’. Jones valued such camps because they ‘rescue’ unemployed men from ‘the apathy of worklessness’; what he despised was indifference to their plight.

Did this make him a Nazi sympathiser? Not at all, but Jones certainly has good contacts with the Nazi leaders, and he was denounced by some Western anti-fascists for ‘smearing’ the Soviet Union, of which the Ukraine was a part.

Jones died young, murdered in China in 1935 shortly before his 30th birthday. I very much welcome the film’s celebration of a journalist who uncovered uncomfortable truths about things most readers preferred to ignore. Meanwhile, if you want to read more on 1930s work camps in Britain (and to a lesser extent Ireland), hunt down a copy of my book.

Why Rendlesham is special – Anglo-Saxon palace, UFO landing site, work camp for the London unemployed

rendlesham-forest-suffolk3

Archaeologists from Suffolk County Council believe that they have uncovered the remains of an Anglo-Saxon palace near Rendlesham. If so, this is quite a find, and puts Rendlesham firmly on the map for all those interested in this island’s distant past. But some of us already know the village well, for other reasons.

Most famously, Rendlesham is known among Ufologists as ‘Britain’s Roswell’, the site of Britain’s first UFO landing. Less well known is the history of the Rendlesham Instructional Centre, which served between 1936 and 1939  as part of the Ministry of Labour’s programme of ‘reconditioning’ long term unemployed men by a programme of heavy manual labour (further details here).

Previously, the Ministry of Labour had built its work camps in isolated areas that were within a train journey of the coalfields and other areas of concentrated unemployment. London’s unemployed were viewed as unlikely to benefit from work camp placements, partly because many of them tended to go into and out of jobs on a more or less casual basis, and partly because new employment opportunities were opening up in and around the capital.

The coalfields, by contrast, were viewed as areas of long term unemployment whose population should transfer to work in other parts of the country. But by 1935 the Ministry of Labour faced difficulties recruiting for its camps, and started to focus on new areas.

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Ministry of Labour Annual Report, 1936

Rendlesham was selected because of its location. By 1936, Rendlesham already belonged to the Forestry Commission, which had started to plant trees in 1933, so there was plenty of work available to extend the forestable area. It was also within easy reach of London.

The Instructional Centre opened in December 1936, with a capacity of 200 men. Its track record was poor: during its first full year of operation it admitted 810 men, 199 of whom were dismissed or walked out, with a further 441 completing their course only to go back on the dole; only 45 found work, many of them by their own devices rather than the Ministry’s.

None of this stopped the Ministry, and the Unemployment Assistance Board, from congratulating themselves on the wonderful work of the centre. Unsurprisingly, then, Rendlesham work camp was short lived, and it closed well before war broke out. It was certified as an approved school in 1939, and was then designated as a ‘Civil Training Centre’ for conscientious objectors.

Of course none of this story will ever be as well known as the Anglo-Saxon palace and the alien incursion, but it is a pointed reminder that workfare has a history – and that it is a history of failure. And, like many of the former work camp sites, it is a fabulous area for walking.

Benny Lynch: the world boxing champion who fought in a work camp

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Lynch’s grave, image copyright Lairich Rig and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons

Benny Lynch was arguably the greatest boxer that Scotland has ever produced. Born in the Gorbals in 1913, he became world flyweight champion in 1936 (or 1935, depending on which world championship we are talking about) and was a popular Glasgow hero. The popular actor Norman Wisdom, himself a handy amateur flyweight boxer, was said to be desperate to play him.

Now a campaign for a statue in his honour has received support from the actor Robert Carlyle among others. I happen to think a statue would be highly fitting. But my interest in Lynch was sparked less by his sporting prowess than by the fact that he fought an exhibition match in front of an audience of staff and trainees at a government work camp.

This information comes from Mr Ian MacArthur, who contacted the Dunoon Observer after reading an interview about my book on work camps. Mr MacArthur’s grandfather kept a local temperance hotel, and in 1934 his father became woodwork and metalwork instructor at Ardentinny Instructional Centre. Mr MacArthur remembered his father saying that the camp manager had arranged for Benny Lynch to visit the camp, where he fought an exhibition match with the physical training instructor.

Ardentinny was one of 24 ICs in 1934, run by the Ministry of Labour to ‘harden’ young unemployed men through a combination of hard work, a solid diet, and basic medical care. By 1934, the camps also provided some basic skills training, literacy classes, and entertainment, including films and sports, of which football and boxing were far the most popular (along with rugby in Wales). If you look closely at the postcard below, you can see men swimming in the Clyde.

Ardentinny postcard

These activities were, of course, highly compatible with the camps’ aim of ‘reconditioning’ male bodies. Presumably, they also went some way to alleviate the tedium of camp existence, particularly if a local celebrity like Lynch was involved.

 

How do mature students perform in higher education?

New PictureThere has been a lot of research into mature students in higher education. My strong impression is that the main focus of it is on access – that is, the rate at which adult students enter institutions, the subjects that they study, the ways in which they study, and their experiences while studying. There has been much less study of how they perform academically, or of how they fare after they graduate.

The fate of non-traditional graduates in the labour market is being investigated by the EMPLOY research project. And a study for HEFCE has recently compared how different types of student perform academically within higher education. The media have shown great interest in HEFCE’s findings, though perhaps predictably they have concentrated largely on evidence that state school students are more likely to achieve a first or upper second class degree than the privately-educated.

My focus in this post is on quite another group: mature age students, whether studying full- or part-time. First, though, a couple of health warnings. We should treat the degree classification system as a very rough and ready indicator of ability and attainment. The proportion who achieve a first or upper second varies over time (usually it grows) and between institutions. It’s difficult to say why these variations occur, not least because any discussion triggers defensiveness in the academic community, and ‘dumbing down’ accusations from the tabloids. But if degree classification is far from perfect, it tells us something.

My next qualifier concerns the methods used in the study. The researchers undertook a statistical analysis that allowed them to compare groups by controlling for other factors. For example, the method only compared mature students who had been to state schools and were studying at pre-92 universities with younger students with the same background, and so on. This aspect was not much reported in the media, who simply headlined the finding that – to cite the BBC – State students outperform private in degree grades. 

Though the media ignored this point, it matters because it means that the researchers are trying to compare like with like. But of course, they cannot take account of factors for which they do not have information (such as income level, family background or first language). And they could only look at very large groups, taking all mature students together (defined as over 21 at time of entry) and all minority ethnic groups together (despite huge variations between different groups).

This procedure makes a big difference to how we understand the performance of mature students. The crude data for 2013/14 show that 64% of mature graduates achieved a first or upper second, compared with 75% of young graduates. But once they controlled for other factors, the researchers found a “dramatic” shift in their figures: taking everything into account, mature students were 7% more likely to gain a top degree, as opposed to 11% less likely.

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What this means is that for mature students, the negative variation in degree results is largely explained by other things than their age. For example, it might be down to their prior qualifications having prepared them less well than recent A-Levels, or their tendency to cluster in universities (and colleges) that award relatively few first and upper second class degrees. And it might also mean that adults have a relative advantage in being able to draw on life experience, which would explain the large shift between the observed gap of -11% and the +7% gap in the statistical analysis.

Then we come to part-time students, who are of course largely likely to be adults who combine study with other activities such as caring or work. The observed gap between part-time and full-time students is large: 75% of full-timers gained a first or upper second, compared with 57% of part-timers. When other factors are taken into account, the gap fell, but by only 4%, from 18% to 14%.

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So, all other things being equal, there appears to be a serious educational disadvantage from studying part-time. Like all statistical models this is a pattern at the level of the whole population, and a lot of individuals may have very different experiences, but that does not invalidate the method. Rather, it tells us that we need to look elsewhere to explain the relatively poor performance of many part-time students – and, I hope, then to do somethiing about it.

And as an academic veteran, I can think of a few possible causes that lie within the power of universities. Academic support for part-timers tends to be less effective, partly because facilities are often closed outside ‘normal’ working hours, for example. Other factors can be very challenging for institutions, particularly those that result from the busy lives of people who have full time roles elsewhere, and who are students for only a relatively small part of their lives.

What the research does not justify is the sharp decline in part-time and mature-age study that has taken place across all four nations of the UK. The collapse in part-time higher education in particular is a scandal: it makes a mockery of claims to be promoting forms of study that combine learning with work, and it is undermining social mobility. In the end, then, it will damage both society and the economy.

Britain’s 1930s work camps: more Midsomer than Maribor?

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My book on British work camp systems has just been reviewed in the august pages of the English Historical Journal. It’s a largely positive review (phew!) and provides a more than fair summary of the contents. Inevitably, the author has some reservations; she points to limitations in my treatment of gender relations and also argues that I overemphasise the body at the expense of the communitarian dimension of work camp schemes.

These are valid points, which I largely accept (though I defend my inclusion of a chapter on residential training centres for unemployed women on the grounds that these present such a contrast with the masculine world of the work camps). On one point I do take issue, and this is where the reviewer quotes me as saying that ‘the British work camps were “more Midsomer than Majdanek”‘.

I did indeed use that phrase, but not in relation to work camps. I was writing about the vision of a future England that was proposed by the British Germanophile and environmentalist thinker Rolf Gardiner, who in turn was writing about the Danish folk high school movement. Gardiner’s dream, I claimed, was ‘an idealised rural vision of Nazism – more Midsomer than Majdanek’.

While I don’t think that even the most stringent British work camps can compare with the extermination centres of the Third Reich, I also made it very clear that I did not share the view of some historians that the Ministry of Labour camps in particular, along with their predecessors in the labour colony movement, were a comfortable place to be.

I wanted to clarify this point partly because we need to be clear about what the work camp experience involved, and partly because of contemporary debates about work-to-welfare. But in the end, this is a small part of a nice review, which is written by Christine G. Krüger, a historian who is researching youth volunteering in West Germany and Britain in the 20th century. She writes with authority and with knowledge of the sources, and I’m grateful to her.

1940: when work camp trainees paraded through Dublin, saluting De Valera

On 8 December 1940, the 1st Battalion of the Construction Corps marched through Dublin. The 408 men wore uniform, had undergone initial training at the massive Curragh army camp, carried a blue flag bearing the Corps emblem, and were led by the Number 1 Army Band. As they passed Government Buildings on Merrion Street, they saluted the Taoiseach, Éamon DeValera, and four of his Ministers.

From The Irish Times, 3 October 1940

From The Irish Times, 3 October 1940

The Construction Corps was in fact a labour corps, recruited from the unemployed. Bryce Evans, writing in the Irish labour history journal Saothar, traced its origins to proposals from Seán Lemass, who had taken a keen interest in imitating the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. With rising unemployment following the outbreak of the Second World War, Lemass’ ideas were revived. The Construction Corps, run by Ministry of Defence, was the result.

Recruitment, of young unmarried unemployed men, began at the start of October 1940. As in Britain, the authorities argued that work, decent food and camp life would together help rebuild men’s bodies after the damaging effects of unemployment. The men lived in hutted or tented camps, far from the cities, and worked on land reclamation or peat digging in areas such as Connemara. And although born of war-time conditions, it lasted until 1948.

The Construction Corps badge

The Construction Corps badge

The Dublin parade took place early on in the Corp’s life. It is particularly interesting for me because this was such a public event, watched and applauded by thousands of Dubliners. There was much comment on the men’s bodies: according to an Irish Press reporter,

No onlooker could have failed to appraise these young men, their good colour, fitness and their smart military bearing.

The reporter duly drew a contrast with the unemployed ‘street corner’ city boys who were now ‘erect, healthy and determined’. In similar vein, the Catholic Herald thought that ‘This is what weakening bodies and minds have needed too long . . . we may hope for a better manhood when the trial is over’.

Ireland’s work camp system was distinctive, developing as it did in a nation where the land had historical resonance, where wartime conditions were leading to a steady flow of young men to Britain, and where severe economic disruption led to a series of significant but poorly co-ordinated government interventions. Nevertheless, as anyone familiar with work camp systems will know, manhood and health were pervasive themes: working men’s bodies degenerated if left idle for too long – hard work, solid food and outdoor living could ‘recondition’ these weakened frames.

Performing masculinity: teaching the haka to the unemployed

I have just 21 weeks to wait before the start of the Rugby World Cup. To while away the time, I want to remember a rugby-playing Marxist from New Zealand who in 1934 taught the haka at a summer camp for unemployed men.

Bertram in China in 1937

Bertram in China in 1937

James Munro Bertram was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford when he volunteered to spend his summer with the Universities Council for Unemployed Camps (UCUC). Born in Auckland on 11 August 1910 to a Presbyterian family, he came to England with left-wing views and a training in journalism. He graduated in 1934 with a first in English, then took a second class degree in modern languages in the following year.

UCUC, though based in Cambridge, drew support from a number of English and Scottish universities, and is best understood as part of the broader tradition of student social service, sharpened by the political and economic divisions of the 1930s. Its founders came from a broadly Christian milieu, as did Bertram.

Launched in 1933, UCUC organised some ten work camps during the long summer vacation in the following year. One camp was in Eynsham, on the estate of the fabulously-named Col. Raymond ffenell, a former gold mine owner who used his estate at at Wytham Abbey to promote charitable causes. As was typical in UCUC camps, it involved a small group of around a dozen student leaders and some 60 unemployed men, who worked together to prepare a camp site for the Girl Guides, including digging out an area for use as a swimming pool.

Extract from The Times, 19 July 1934

Extract from The Times, 19 July 1934

The camp leaders also organised a visitors’ night, inviting Col. ffenell and other local inhabitants for an evening’s entertainment. Such events were quite common in UCUC camps, and had a number of different functions; the organisers certainly hoped that they might help reduce local suspicions of the unemployed; they also aimed to build bonds between the unemployed and the students; and they provided an opportunity to raise funds from the audience.

The high point of the Eynsham visitors’ night was Noah’s Flood, a medieval miracle play, performed on Pinkhill Lock and lit by car headlamps. The play was directed by the leading Chaucerian scholar Nevil Coghill, who also featured earlier on the programme as a violinist. The acts also included songs, humour (stand-up), animal mimicry, and a ‘Maori dance and war cry’ performed by the men of Tent 9.

First half of the Visitors' Night programme

First half of the Visitors’ Night programme

James Bertram was leader of Tent 9 (in keeping with the UCUC principle of allocating one student to each tent as its leader). The decision to teach the men to perform the haka reflected his keen interest in rugby, while presumably it was his political beliefs that led Coghill to cast him in Noah’s Flood as a somewhat ahistorical ‘Red Shirt’.

What was a New Zealander, studying English, doing at an unemployed camp? Bertram was a Christian and a convinced socialist, and he reportedly decided to join UCUC after supporting the Hunger Marchers as they paraded through Oxford. As a democratic Marxist he opted to join the Independent Labour Party rather than the Communist Party, starting an ILP branch at the University. After leaving Oxford he worked as a journalist, becoming a foreign correspondent in China before eventually being imprisoned by the Japanese. Subsequently he obtained a senior lectureship in English at Victoria University College, Wellington, where he taught until his retirement.

Bertram died in 1993, and I’m sorry that I never met him. He probably wouldn’t have agreed with my view of the work camps as a form of intervention on the male body – but he sounds as though the discussions would have been interesting and informative.